Earlier this week, I got an email from a certain streaming service. They just added a movie I might be interested in! And that movie was this:
Did an algorithm create this suggestion for me? Probably. But at this current moment in this current time, I’m good not watching The Help again. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are incredible, and you can catch them in films from Black filmmakers instead.
So, I present to you: Not an exhaustive, but a fairly lengthy, list of movies by Black directors and writers that you should check out. These are a mixture of films that broke ground, that were critically admired, that were commercially successful, that we loved here at Pajiba, that are just flat-out great. If we reviewed it, I linked to it. If it’s streamable, I told you where. And if it had a trailer on YouTube, I embedded it.
Listen to what these Black filmmakers have to say. They have a lot to tell you.
Girls Trip (2017): Available for rent on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, and more.
Girls Trip puts the cast in situations ripe for comedy — a 10-minute sequence involving absinthe, hallucinations, and Queen Latifah fucking a lamp is the funniest sequence of 2017 — and they take full advantage, elevating material with hilarious (and often filthy) performances without needing to manufacture it from thin air.—Dustin Rowles
Widows (2018): Streaming on Hulu.
Instantly Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn have established a world of passion, survival, and misdirection. One of the best things about any McQueen film is his ability to exploit a location in order to ink out the story the land tells geographically. Chicago is the perfect setting for this thriller.—Joelle Monique
Little Woods (2018): Streaming on Hulu.
Little Woods sternly shines a light on an inhumane American reality. And Nia DaCosta’s cast brings a gritty authenticity to this rugged setting.—Kristy Puchko
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975: Streaming on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, and Sling TV.
Black Panther (2018): Streaming on Hulu and Disney+.
It’s a deeply affecting film that touches on race and international politics in a way that’s far more interesting and insightful than any of its predecessors by far, as one of its central themes is the idea of Wakanda’s isolationist policy — it exists for its people, and it protects its people, but what of the people outside its borders? Wakanda becomes less a nation and more an idea, and the idea has the possibility to blossom into something incredible.—TK
I Am Not Your Negro (2016): Available for rent on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, and more.
Mudbound (2017): Streaming on Netflix.
Dee Rees paints a portrait of black American life as weighty with emotional anguish but also deeply infused with tradition and joy. She makes clear both the myopia and narrowness of racist thinking, and the genetic and generational trauma it stamps upon the black communities affected by it. And yet there is a rhythm to Mudbound, a lyricism, that refuses to give into defeatism and doubt.—Roxana Hadadi
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018): Streaming on Hulu.
Barry Jenkins is teaching us that love is greater. It is the best weapon to fight hate. It is not a gun or a sword, but a trojan horse. Romantic love, familial love, the love of a friend, and the love of humanity pop up in the darkest moments of the film to remind us that love cannot be killed, only transformed.—Joelle Monique
Burning Cane (2019): Streaming on Netflix.
Phillip Youmans stops short of poverty porn in depicting this town; we aren’t invited to gaze upon hardship over and over again. These people are legitimately faithful, even if Tillman is a hypocrite. The choir is passionate. The churchgoers are genuine. Helen truly needs help. But what Youmans insists upon making clear is that quite often, our only pleasures are earthly ones—the orange Jeremiah picks from a tree and eats; the song that Jeremiah and Daniel listen to, “They’re Red Hot,” originally recorded by blues legend Robert Johnson; the slice of cake Helen cuts for herself and devours in her kitchen.—Roxana Hadadi
Homecoming (2019): Streaming on Netflix.
[Homecoming is] a thoroughly declarative autobiographical work, the most precise distillation of Beyoncé’s varying ideas about blackness, feminism, identity, fame, and capital. Beyoncé doesn’t talk to reporters, journalists, or writers anymore, and so Homecoming stands on its own, a creation that is entirely hers, that isn’t filtered through anyone else. What results is an immense amount of work, the details of which are so unbelievable that I had to keep pausing this thing to really process it all.—Roxana Hadadi
Fruitvale Station (2013): Streaming on Tubi.
In our introduction to Oscar, he is a lively, combative presence with great reserves of charisma: he speaks fast, he is off-the-cuff and bright. A few more scenes — including a lovely breakfast scene with the couple’s daughter the next day — add a few more assured brushstrokes to this picture . We gradually get a sense of the type of man Oscar is, through interactions with pretty much everyone he knows, in text messages he sends to everyone, phone calls, and encounters with strangers: the sense is of a conflicted, kind and generous man.—Caspar Salmon
Creed (2015): Available for rent on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, and more.
Scripted by Aaron Covington and Ryan Coogler (who also directed, and who helmed the superlative Fruitvale Station that also starred Jordan), it’s a graceful, smoothly-flowing script that hits few stumbling blocks, instead just building up momentum throughout, only slowing down to give you a better chance to know its characters. And those three leads are all fully fleshed, intelligently written, and terrifically performed.—TK
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018): Streaming on Netflix.
Though the innovative patent-pending animation technique makes the film look like a four-color comic, complete with misalignments and thought bubbles, it also takes pains to make Miles a fully-formed Black Latino teenager in a vibrant world of family and friends and music (the soundtrack includes Jaden Smith, Vince Staples, Nicki Minaj, and Post Malone — who also voices a bystander in the film). This may be a Spider-Man story seemingly constructed out of deep-cuts, but it manages to be one of the most broadly accessible, funny, and joyfully exuberant takes on the character I’ve ever seen.—Tori Preston
Get Out (2017): Available for rental on Google Play, Amazon Prime, and more.
It’s going to make you laugh. It’s going to scare you. And most importantly, it’s going to make you think about race in new ways. It’s a riveting and intense horror movie, a terrific (and timely) piece of racial and societal satire, and just a great fucking film.—TK
Us (2019): Streaming on Hulu and HBO Max.
It’s also a radical departure from his first film, as if now that he’s established, he’s free to really get his hands dirty, and that may be what makes Us so appealing. It lacks the obvious crowd appeal of its predecessor - it’s a darker, scarier, harsher film that is a good deal more uncomfortable. But Jordan Peele manipulates his audience masterfully, breaking moments of unbearable tension with brilliantly curated comic relief that lasts only a second, just enough to pop the balloon before throwing another at you.—TK
Moonlight (2016): Streaming on Kanopy and Netflix.
Moonlight was one of the rare transformative experiences, a film so gorgeously filmed, so emotionally resonant, so damn perfect that it changed the way I see movies. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched it, always catching something subtle and beautiful that I never noticed before.—TK
Belle (2013): Available for rental on Google Play, Amazon Prime, and more.
Belle is not the story of Dido becoming comfortable in her own skin. She’s good. It’s the world that needs to change.—Kristy Puchko
Daughters of the Dust (1991): Streaming on Kanopy. Available for rental on Google Play, Amazon Prime, and more.
Julie Dash’s blend of Gullah culture—its stories, sounds, songs and hairstyles—mixed with the conservative and crisp turn-of-the-century American wardrobe makes for a captivating cinematic experience, rich in atmosphere, and pulsing hard with spirit. Family conflict interwoven with explorations of legacy and told through the eyes of an undetermined descendant, it’s mind-bending and heart-warming. It’s brilliant and at times bizarre. It’s what you hope indie film will bring to cinema’s landscape, challenging its audiences while heaving us into awe.—Kristy Puchko
Do the Right Thing (1989): Available for rental on Google Play, Amazon Prime, and more.
Spike Lee is brilliant at adeptly exposing the unsuspecting racism or ignorance in the average person, but he rarely, if ever, provides a satisfying, viewer-friendly conclusion. The film doesn’t take the cheap and easy route of providing a message of hope as a conclusion, and it gives you no answers. Instead, it simply rips off the societal scabs and lets us watch them bleed.—TK
Love and Basketball (2000): Available for rental on Google Play, Amazon Prime, and more.
The film is largely told from Monica’s point of view, and Gina Prince-Bythewood — directing from her own script — manages to successfully mine the real conflict between romance and career. Sanaa Lathan is perfectly cast, too. She’s skinned-knee tough, temperamental as hell, and absolutely radiant, on the court and off. Omar Epps — with those soulful eyes and tenderhearted toughness — offers a compelling and believable balance (although, his short stature often calls into question his ability as an NBA player).—Dustin Rowles
13th (2016): Streaming on Netflix.
Fearlessly, Ava DuVernay digs back into a history written in blood and teargas, reaching into corners of the American experience that white America has the luxury to avert our tender eyes from.—Kristy Puchko
Timbuktu (2014): Available for rental on Google Play, Amazon Prime, and more.
Boyz N The Hood (1991): Streaming on Hulu.
I can express my admiration for the work that John Singleton has done, of the legacy he has left behind, for all that he has done to help kick in the door for other talented Black artists both in front of and behind the cameras. I can also express my disgust at much of what he did in the past.—Brian Richards
See You Yesterday (2019): Streaming on Netflix.
The Afro-Latino culture of Flatbush shines in flags, accents, and the reggae music that rolls over the teens as they toil away in Bash’s grandparents’ garage. … And in a nod to Black history, See You Yesterday’s heroine is named after Madam C. J. Walker, a groundbreaking entrepreneur and philanthropist who is credited as the first female self-made millionaire in the United States. If I could pick all this out in one viewing, you can bet there’s more in store.—Kristy Puchko
The Hate U Give (2018): Streaming on Hulu.
The Hate U Give is a cipher. A blending of multiple Black voices sharing their stories of fear, resistance, and most importantly community. Love, not the gooey on-screen kind, but the difficult, brutally honest kind radiates through every frame. A loving father and mother, the love of blended families, and the love of true friends.—Joelle Monique
Queen & Slim (2020): Available for rental on Google Play, Amazon Prime, and more.
Melina Matsoukas provides loving care to the landscapes of the American South, away from the eroticism with which Queen and Slim dance in that nightclub, away from the haunting nature of the film’s closing track, Moses Sumney’s “Doomed.” “From whence does fulfillment come?” Sumney wonders in that longing, melancholy song, and Queen & Slim is at its best when it paints portraits of black love and black resistance as answers to that question.—Roxana Hadadi
Shaft (1971): Available for rental on Google Play, Amazon Prime, and more.
Tongues Untied (1989): Streaming on Kanopy.
Pariah (2011): Available for rental on Google Play, Amazon Prime, and more.
New Jack City (1991): Available for rental on Google Play, Amazon Prime, and more.
Malcolm X (1992): Streaming on Netflix.
Inside Man (2006): Streaming on Netflix.
Clemency (2019): Available for rental on Google Play, Amazon Prime, and more.
Selah and the Spades (2020): Streaming on Amazon Prime.
The film takes on heavily archetypal notions of high school life and turns them into something intriguingly fresh—John Hughes’ playbook by way of a mafia flick, with a dash of noir for taste.—Ciara Wardlow
Eve’s Bayou (1997): Streaming on Hulu.
Alive with color and emotion, Eve’s Bayou swells with joy and pain as it tells a defiantly female story that loops in motherhood, sisterhood, marriage, widowhood and the dizzying introduction of menstruation. But the film’s boldest gambit is its ending.—Kristy Puchko
Atlantics (2019): Streaming on Netflix.
Harriet (2019): Available for rental on Google Play, Amazon Prime, and more.
In its focus on the emotional traumas of slavery in particular, Harriet goes places that no other film has before—places that were previously glaring omissions in cinematic depictions of slavery, and for filling these significant gaps alone Harriet deserves praise.—Ciara Wardlow
The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019): Streaming on Amazon Prime and Kanopy.
This is a film with moments so gorgeous and so raw and so honest that I started crying about 10 minutes in and couldn’t really will myself to stop. That’s not to say this is entirely a depressing film. There is joy in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and wittiness, and verve, captured within picturesque tableaus of the black American experience: men playing dominos, children running on the playground, young men exalting in a summer afternoon. Those brief periods of happiness in our days that make up a life.—Roxana Hadadi
Sorry to Bother You (2018): Streaming on Hulu.
Where the film ends is nowhere near where it began, but the journey is a delight and feels somehow inevitable. This film is inventive and absurdist, filled with pointed condemnation and something awfully close to hope, and for all the stylistic flairs and thoughtful messages, it stays rooted in characters that could have been caricatures if not for the specificity with which they were drawn.—Tori Preston
High Flying Bird (2019): Streaming on Netflix.
You can try to enact change in the world, and you can try to make things better, and you can try to build coalitions, and you can try to foster understanding, and sometimes you just have to smash it all down. If the men in charge won’t hear you, you have to remind them. Wealth isn’t the only form of power. There’s labor, too.—Roxana Hadadi
Black Dynamite (2009): Available for rental on Google Play, Amazon Prime, and more.
Michael Jai White has to carry most of the film on his shoulders, and he just fucking kills it. He goes from scowling and haunted stares to crazy whooping Kiais effortlessly. You never once feel like he’s playing a spoof — he embodies a legitimate entry into the whole black badass cannon. It’s just a goddamn lowdown dirty shame he’ll get zero recognition for his performance. The Academy will give Robert Downey, Jr. a nomination for playing the same character in blackface, but fuck it if someone does it for real, and with talent.—Brian Prisco
Blindspotting (2018): Streaming on Hulu and HBO Max.
Many people are already in love with Daveed Diggs, whether it’s because of hip-hop group clipping, or TV or commercial appearances, or that Hamilton musical which is kind of a thing. And here he shows why everyone loves him. He’s dynamic, he’s funny, he’s heart-wrenching and, yes, he displays his vocal and lyrical prowess. Casal, meanwhile, is a relative newcomer but dives into his role with unflinching abandon. He starts off feeling like little more than comic relief before the film starts to show us that, although he doesn’t carry the same weight as Diggs’ Collin, he is nevertheless fighting to stay afloat in his own way.—Seth Freilich
Dope (2015): Available for rental on Google Play, Amazon Prime, and more.
Dope isn’t just a hilarious, madcap, oddly John-Hughesian take on inner city life. It’s also smart and wickedly sharp, a biting critique of the way we look at black youth, at education, at music and life in general. It’s often an excoriating examination of what larger society thinks “black culture” is, and it breaks open that shell of mislabeling and misunderstanding and dumps its truths onto the floor for all to see.—TK
Dear White People (2014): Available for rental on Google Play, Amazon Prime, and more.
Luce (2019): Streaming on Hulu.
Fences (2016): Available for rental on Google Play, Amazon Prime, and more.
Is Denzel the greatest director on the planet? Who the fuck cares? When you got Denzel in your movie, an asshole with an iPhone can produce an Oscar nomination, and he doesn’t need 50 takes. As long as he keeps Denzel in the frame, he only needs one.—Dustin Rowles
NOTE: After this piece was filed, Criterion announced that they were taking down the paywall on certain films available on their streaming service the Criterion Channel to “highlight films that focus on Black Lives.” My suggestions are The Fits, The Watermelon Woman, and the only film Maya Angelou ever directed, Down in the Delta, starring Alfre Woodard. You can read more here:
Black Lives Matter. pic.twitter.com/aRwDVjuI0O— Criterion Collection (@Criterion) June 4, 2020
Image sources (in order of posting): YouTube, Netflix, BAM, Amazon